(c) Stage 6 Films
Recently, I wondered what my favourite pieces of ‘movie mood music’ were.
By movie mood music, I mean compositions that are instrumental – sorry, Celine, no singing (or in your case, caterwauling) allowed. I also mean compositions that fit closely with certain scenes or themes in the films they accompany, to the point where it’s difficult to imagine one without the other. And I mean compositions that aren’t so grandiose that they need to be belted out by whole orchestras. No, they have to be intimate.
For that last reason I’ve excluded film music by the likes of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Bernard Herrman and John Barry. And for the sake of simplicity and brevity, I’ve limited my choices to the 21st century. So, alas, I’ve had to eschew such composers as Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini, Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter too.
Anyway, here are half-a-dozen such tracks from half-a-dozen movies that I can listen to repeatedly and always feel ‘moved’ by.
I’m old enough to remember Clint Mansell before he became a famous film composer. For he was once lead singer with the unglamorous ‘grebo’ band Pop Will Eat Itself, whose finest hour was probably the hit single Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies! in 1993. I was thus a wee bit surprised in 1998 when I went to a cinema to see Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and discovered that its marvellously frantic and pulsing music was the work of a now reinvented Mr Mansell.
Aronofsky is the director with whom Mansell is most associated. He’s contributed scores to subsequent Aronofsky movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2005), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014). But for my money his greatest work is for the Duncan Jones-directed Moon (2009). In particular, I love Welcome to Lunar Industries, the first tune on that film’s soundtrack album. Its plaintive piano sound captures both the loneliness of the film’s setting – the moon’s surface – and the melancholy of its storyline, which is about the sole human inhabitant (Sam Rockwell) of a futuristic lunar mining installation discovering the tragic truth about who and what he really is.
Incidentally, Mansell has teamed up with director Ben Wheatley for his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel High Rise, to be released later this year. I can’t wait to see – and hear – that.
(c) Columbia Pictures
Similarly, Trent Reznor has a background as a rock musician. He’s the mastermind behind the excellent industrial / synth / metal band Nine Inch Nails. Unlike Mansell, though, he’s kept his original job going whilst also providing music for films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014), not to mention assembling the brilliant musical soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers back in 1994.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl were both directed by David Fincher, and it’s from another Fincher movie that Reznor worked on, 2010’s biopic of billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg The Social Network, that I’ve picked my next piece of music, Intriguing Possibilities. With an urgent, high-tech sound that’s practically Reznor’s trademark, Intriguing Possibilities suggests the context of dizzyingly-fast technological change that facilitates Zuckerberg’s rise to fame and fortune. It also suggests the entrepreneurial thought processes whirring endlessly inside Zuckerberg’s head.
I’ve heard people say that Intriguing Possibilities turns up too on the soundtrack to 2011’s Drive, but I can’t remember hearing it when I watched that movie on DVD a little while ago.
(c) Legendary Pictures / Syncopy
As Clint Mansell is to Darren Aronofsky and Trent Reznor is to David Fincher, so German composer Hans Zimmer is to Christopher Nolan. So far he’s worked on Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005, 2008 and 2012), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014). (Actually, Zimmer has had an equally productive, if less famous association with Ridley Scott – at my last count he’d worked on a half-dozen Scott movies, including 2000’s Gladiator.)
I really can’t not nominate Zimmer’s instrumental Time, which plays near the end of Inception when Leonardo Di Caprio and his team wake up from their dream-hacking mission and Di Caprio then goes home and is reunited with his children. It’s a gorgeous piece of music and, again, it manages to capture the different themes running through the film. Its grander moments evoke Inception‘s big ideas about taking dreams and transforming them into spectacular cinematic backdrops; while its more intimate moments reflect the personal trauma that’s quietly but mercilessly haunting its lead character.
Now onto something darker. John Murphy’s In the House in a Heartbeat has appeared on various soundtracks, including the Kick–Ass movies (2010 and 2013). It’s even been used on the BBC’s motoring show Top Gear as an accompaniment for the antics of Jeremy Clarkson and co. However, for me, In the House in a Heartbeat is about one thing only. It’s about being chased by an army of slavering, hyperactive, blood-spewing zombies. For yes, it’s the signature tune of the 28 Days Later movies.
(c) 20th Century Fox
In Danny Boyle’s original 28 Days Later (2002), it plays during the climax when the zombie-virus breaks loose in a storm-lashed mansion-house where the civilian good guys and military bad guys are holed up. During the sequel, 28 Weeks Later (2007), it plays on no fewer than three occasions: most memorably at the beginning, when Robert Carlyle legs it from an under-siege farmhouse, only to discover that lots of zombies are rushing across the surrounding fields towards him. Actually, that scene came to mind one day when I went jogging and In the House in a Heartbeat started playing on my Walkman – I did a lot of nervous looking-back over my shoulder.
Danny Boyle teased recently that he might return to direct a third film, called – what else? – 28 Months Later. So I hope that Mr Murphy’s memorable tune will accompany more scenes of zombie-fuelled mayhem in future. Its structure – uneasily gentle and mannered to begin with, then building to a thunderous climax – nicely mirrors the films’ plots, where civilisation gives way to nightmarish chaos.
(c) BFI / Film4
Even darker is the instrumental Death composed and performed by Mica Levi for the 2014 arthouse sci-fi / horror movie Under the Skin, in which Scarlet Johansson plays an alien vampire-ess preying on lecherous men in modern-day Glasgow. The squealing, squalling and thudding Death accompanies the scenes where Johansson’s victims are lured into her apartment and meet a fate so unpleasantly weird that it’d give even David Cronenberg the jitters. If Venus flytraps were sentient beings, Death is probably the sort of music they’d use to serenade one another.
Finally, I have to mention something by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who’ve overseen the music for films such as The Proposition (2007), The Road (2010) and Lawless (2012). I think I’ll go for Another Rather Lovely Thing, from the soundtrack of the stylish and elegiac western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik and released in 2007. The eighth item on the soundtrack album, it’s a wistful, ruminative and, befitting its title, rather lovely thing.
(c) Warner Bros